Desk Set and The Fictional World of Archives

Feature Film Release Date (North America): 1957

One of the lesser-known Spencer Tracy-Hepburn Katharine pairings, based on the Broadway play by William Marchant. Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head of a busy research department at a TV network. Tracy plays Richard Sumner, the engineer brought in by management to secretly plan the conversion of several departments to a state-of-the-art computer called "Emiac" (a take-off on "Univac.") Complications ensue: erroneous rumours state that Tracy is a heartless efficiency expert; workers fret that they'll lose their jobs to computers; and office politics and intrigues abound. Hepburn and her boss Mike Cutler (Gig Young) are having an on-again-off-again relationship -- which, of course, is threatened by the inevitable chemistry between Kate and Spencer.

There's a great running gag in the film: Hepburn answers a dazzling range of research questions, puzzles, and mathematical problems -- all off the top of her head -- by relying on various mnemonic devices, math tricks and a great grasp of trivia. Her all-female staff is almost as skilled. When it finally comes time for the inevitable showdown between the staff and Emiac, it's readily shown that the computer's ability to store and retrieve facts is useful, but can't duplicate the well-honed research skills and intuitive approach of Hepburn and her "girls."

Anyone who's been involved in archives automation will be amused by the film's utopian view of computers. Emiac, which takes over a big chunk of the research department's office space, is installed and made operational in a single weekend. All of the essential "facts" in the department's resources are keyed in manually by one operator in about three weeks. Emiac accepts questions as full sentences in plain English -- and runs fine as long as nobody pushes "the red button," which of course is right out in plain view!

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CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Submitted by Dennis J. Duffy, 1999.06.13. Updated 1999.07.06.